The CPRE is wrong: there are not 460,000 homes planned for England’s green belts

Green belt. Image: Romfordian/Wikimedia Commons.

Mamma mia, here we go again. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, a body whose raison d’etre is to protect the interests of elderly homeowners and fields, has produced the latest edition of its State of the Green Belt report. Does it conclude that the green belt is in a pretty fine kind of a state, sitting smugly around the place as it chokes off productivity growth and prevents us from building the houses that we need? No it does not.

The Green Belt remains under severe pressure, despite government commitments to its protection, according to a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

CPRE’s annual State of the Green Belt report highlights that there are currently 460,000 homes being planned to be built on land that will soon be released from the Green Belt.

There’s even a TERRIFYING CHART to illustrate the problem:

Now. Regular readers will know my position on all this. The green belt is a decades-old planning policy, designed to prevent sprawl at a time when our cities were shrinking in population and, anyway, had plenty of spare land that had helpfully been cleared by the Luftwaffe. Many of those cities are today facing a housing crisis which is in large part the result of a shortage of housing supply. That, in turn, is the result of a shortage of available land on which to build.

So, if London or Oxford or Bristol are to build enough homes to meet demand, there are really only two options: build up, by densifying existing parts of the city; or build out, onto previously undeveloped land. Since there are large chunks of the green belt that have decent transport links, aren’t open to the public and are not, in fact, very green, my preference has generally been to go for the solution that doesn’t involve demolishing large numbers of existing homes simply to protect a field.

But let’s put all that to one side for a moment because the entire CPRE report is a load of smelly old bollocks anyway. Look at that chart again: note the way the number of houses “proposed for land release from the green belt” collapses after the initial 2009 figure, then gradually begins to creep up.

What’s going on here? The key is that word “proposed”. These are not real houses, yet, and very well may never become them. They exist entirely within the realms of the local plans councils have written to show how they plan to meet their housing need. The reason their numbers have increased so steeply is because more and more councils have finished producing those plans. (The 2009 draft regional plans clearly under-estimated the figure.)

In other words, what the CPRE has identified here is not an ever growing number of homes on the green belt, but an ever growing number of bits of paper saying such homes may one day be built. They’ve leapt on it, because, “Number of homes proposed for the green belt doubled in three years!” is the sort of headline that’ll get you news coverage for your report. That doesn’t change the fact those houses don’t exist and very probably, given the difficulty of getting communities to accept green belt development, never will.

Does this duplicity matter, really? We all know that campaign groups exaggerate the urgency of their issue in an attempt to garner donations and press coverage. I mean, this is the game, right?


But it does matter – because whether through deliberate cynicism, or merely sloppy research, the CPRE’s report will mislead. It suggests that a growing chunk of the British countryside is disappearing under a tide of brick. That simply isn’t true.

And persuading people that it is makes it harder for politicians to take the tough choices necessary to house this country.

Today’s CPRE report airily waves the need for such choices away, by claiming that there is enough brownfield land – that is, previously developed but currently unoccupied land – in England to provide a million extra homes. That may well be true, but this, too, is misleading, for three reasons.

One is that “land in England” is too wide a category to be useful: if your job is in Oxford, the construction of new homes in Sunderland is of no bloody use to you whatsoever. Another is that, while a million homes sounds like a big number, it isn’t: it’s three or four years supply. Were we to develop every square inch of this land as housing, we would still run out of land by about 2022.

But the biggest problem here is that brownfield land is not all suitable for housing. It may be too contaminated to be easily cleaned up without making local children glow in the dark like they’ve eaten too much Ready Brek, too far from transport links, even – confusingly – too green. (The Hoo Peninsular, in Kent, is technically brownfield: it’s also an important breeding site for nightingales.) The only time “brownfield” is a useful category is when you’re writing a misleading report about how we don’t need to build houses on fields.

So, to end where we came in, for a city struggling to build enough homes to house its population, there are only two options: build up, or build out. The CPRE has made clear it doesn’t want to build out. So what I’d like to know is – whose homes does it think we should demolish?

(Shameless plug: I argued some of these points with the CPRE’s Tom Fyans on Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday. You can listen here – my bit starts at around 1.13.10.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.